Where his full time band Low have become reluctantly labeled purveyors of the pigeonholed, so-called “slowcore” banner, their front man and principal penman Alan Sparhawk has a habit of exploring his other musical faces through side projects. There’s the roots rock of Black Eyed Snakes and the jam band Los Besos, for instance. But Retribution Gospel Choir, in their second installment, do not sound like a mere side project, and their new album demonstrates that they’re also more than just a one-off.
The music contained in Retribution Gospel Choir’s succinctly titled 2 is certainly more worthy of head-banging than shoe-gazing. The album is permeated with a distinctly warm and familiar classic rock feel (the vocal harmonies on Poor Man’s Daughter wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Kansas song, and Working Hard is the best song Boston never wrote).
But there are also hints of stoner rock (often mimicking Wish You Were Here era Pink Floyd, as on the slow-building Electric Guitar), folk, and lighter indie songwriter fare (Bless Us All comes across as nearly an impression of David Bazan‘s post-Pedro The Lion stuff). Overall, the album is much harder hitting, more varied, and generally more accessible than Low’s material whilst still maintaining the aesthetic qualities that make great a alternative rock record.
There are moments of anthemic intensity, sing-along choruses, and dangerously fast guitar shredding smattered throughout, and the production skins the whole album with a thick film of sludgy gruffness, even in its most (dare we say?) pop-oriented moments. The rhythm section – comprised of virtuoso drummer Eric Pollard and bassist and Low compatriot Steve Garrington – lay out a thick and thumping backdrop that perfectly complement Sparhawk’s multi-layered guitars and sweeping vocal intensity.
Opener Hide It Away explodes in marching snare drums, over which Sparhawk asks, “You think you have what you own?” hanging the inflection like a challenge. The eventual effect is something magnificent: a sing-along chorus, a driving hook, guitars that seem ripped from 1993 Seattle. This is vocal syrup to rival Band Of Horses.
Your Bird is decidedly darker and more relentless, with guitar gain cranked up into the red zone, and droning open tones. The swampy metal-blues riff of ’68 Comeback calls up memories of early Nirvana. White Wolf sounds like what might happen if Dave Grohl fronted the E Street Band. The short-lived interlude The Last Of The Blue Dream serves as a welcome reprise, and a gateway into the album’s closing moments.
The most intriguingly experimental moment on 2 comes with the perplexing and challenging Something’s Gonna Break. The muffled recording seems to be coming through the wall of an adjoining hotel room – the drums splashy but non-distinct, the vocals distorted and distant, the guitars tinny – until two and a half minutes in, when the recording bursts into full stereophonic force with the lyric, “We’ve got nothing to sell.” The effect is not unlike emerging quickly from underwater, but the song’s remainder is disappointingly short-lived.
Retribution Gospel Choir presents a definite musical change of pace for Sparhawk, but not one so different that Low fans will be alienated. There’s something here for them, but 2 also offers a glimpse at an institutional figure in new-century indie rock at work, providing what could be wider appeal, teetering at times on the edge of arena rock grandeur but without forsaking its underground soul.